Sunday, September 25, 2011

Doing Diversity DIfferently

Many universities operationalize their commitments to “diversity” in curious and conflicted ways.

In some academic quarters, the term has traditionally meant diversifying standing faculties and student bodies on college campuses by increasing the number of underrepresented minorities, but diversity is one of those ideals that people sometimes accept much more readily in theory than in practice, a principle supported in the abstract but harder to justify as a hard-and-fast campus policy with any real teeth to it, especially with legal threats of “reverse discrimination” lurking in the shadows.

Campuses debate the very meaning of diversity these days, some seeing calls for, say, “internationalization” as a calculated attempt to replace ongoing university commitments to U.S.-based minority recruitment, others asking specifically for “ideological diversity” to address the low number of self-described “conservatives” teaching at many elite colleges and universities.

Some of these same schools end up crafting faculty diversity initiatives that might seem to go against the grain of their institutions’ regular hiring practices, counting and categorizing bodies and subsequently creating search committees to lure accomplished scholars (especially scholars of color) from other places.

The next trick, upon locating interesting candidates, entails convincing relevant departments to consider hiring them. If the names are big enough, the CV’s impressive enough, a department might acquiesce. But there are several reasons why such a strategy, though arguably laudable for its directness and relative simplicity, may be a bit short-sighted.

We could think of central administrations as the academic equivalent of our federal government, which is an analogy that would make specific departments akin to individual states. And in such a strained metaphorical context, just about every single faculty member we’d ever meet would be a staunch advocate for states’ rights. So any extra-departmental recommendations about future hires are usually treated as infringements on departmental autonomy, which they are, as academically unconstitutional (and unconscionable). If the departments didn’t come up with those names on their own, there will almost certainly be a contingent of faculty members with a vested interest in thwarting the hires in question, and sometimes just on general principle. Of course, part of the problem is that some of those very same departments have a hard time coming up with any “diverse” job candidates on their own, often chalking it up to deficiencies in the pipeline.

But if universities are trying to identify “diverse” bodies in such ways, they may be setting themselves up for failure in the long-term, and not just because of any willfully obstructionist faculty. (Of course, at a time of ever-shrinking resources, departments might take new faculty lines any way they can get them.)

The very process of having special hires for minority candidates makes the entire thing look like a “political” move and not an “intellectual” one, regardless of the caliber of the candidates in question (and even though all faculty hires are political and intellectual at the same time). Such a targeted process can feel qualitatively different from normal hiring practices, reinforcing a kind of ghettoized mentality about the entire endeavor.

Indeed, once universities have gotten to the point of looking for bodies qua bodies, they may have already lost the diversity battle.

For example, one of the reasons why departments aren’t as diverse as they could be might pivot on the intellectual projects and objectives that those departments privilege (or not), the way they prioritize their needs and intellectual goals for the future. It is an empirical question, but I wouldn’t be surprised, for example, to find out that there might be a kind of mismatch in many social science fields between what scholars of color are interested in studying and what departments are interested in hiring. If nothing else, it might make sense to have more conversations within academic departments about how five-year plans and statements of departmental goals may frame certain intellectual questions (and the scholars who pose them) out of serious consideration in terms of future departmental growth.

x-listed @ The Chronicle of Higher Education